Study One – Information and Results

Study One is now finished. Please read below for a summary of our results and for information about this study.


Summary of results

Ground Rules and Children’s Interviews

Kia Ora Whanau,

The GRACI Project has been running for about two years now, and our first study has been completed.  Here you will find a summary of what we found out. We are interested in how well children understand and use common “ground rules” that may be used in formal interviews with children. These ground rules are instructions to children to say “I don’t know”, “I don’t understand” or to correct the interviewer if they make a mistake. Ground rules are thought to help children overcome their usual tendencies to try and answer adults’ questions, by guessing, or overlooking incorrect information.  Interviewers who talk to children as part of investigations of maltreatment are advised to begin their interviews with ground rules, but we don’t know very much about how well children understand the purpose of ground rules, and how likely they are to use them. So, in our study we asked children (3-12 years) to do three tasks, to help us understand what children know about ground rules, and how they manage difficult questions from adults.

Here’s what we did.

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In the first task, children were asked to explain to Abby the Alien when it is important to use each rule (e.g., “tell Abby why it is important to say “I don’t know” if someone asks you a question that you don’t know the answer to”), and when you should not use the rule (e.g., “when is it not okay to say “I don’t know”?). This task gave us a sense of how children would explain in their own words why the rules might be important and what the rules are supposed to achieve.

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In the second task, children were read a short story about a boy who woke up one morning to find his pet caterpillar gone. The boy’s mother asked him questions to try and work out what happened to the caterpillar, and the children had to tell us how the boy should answer.  Some of those questions were unanswerable (because the information was not available) and so children should have said “I don’t know”. Some were very confusing (because they used very difficult and unusual words) and so the children should have said “I don’t understand”. Some included incorrect information and so the children should have said “That’s not right”.

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In the third task, children were asked to tell Abby about their morning, and the interviewer asked questions that should have led the children to say, “I don’t know”, “I don’t understand” or “that’s not right”. We did not instruct children to use these responses, because we wanted to see how often they would use them by themselves.

Here’s what we found.

Older children were better able to explain and use the rules than younger children. We saw that under 5’s really had difficulty, 5- to 7-year old children did somewhat better, but still struggled, and 8-years and up did the best – but even the 12-year old children had difficulty and were not showing complete understanding or use.  Children did best at the task that asked them questions about themselves. They were better at explaining the rules than using them to answer the questions about the story. We think they really struggled with the story task because at school (and maybe at home) they are encouraged to answer questions even when they are not sure or don’t know – part of learning is to take a guess or give an answer based on what you know and then get feedback. Children were most likely to correctly respond to “I don’t know” questions across the three tasks. Children were better at saying when there was something wrong (correcting the interviewer) than saying when they did not understand a question. 

This research will help us to advise professionals who question children (e.g., police officers, social workers, lawyers, health professionals) about what to expect from children when they ask them questions.  It also highlights that just because children answer a question doesn’t mean that they know the answer, that they’ve understood the question, or that they accept all of the information that the interviewer has suggested as correct. Our next study is underway, and is looking at how we can teach children to use these rules well in interviews about past experiences.

Our thanks for your support.

We really appreciate all the support from everyone involved in this research, which could not happen without schools, parents, caregivers and children being willing to take part. Our findings will be used in presentations and publications for lawyers, judges, police officers, social workers and other researchers to increase our understanding of how to support children to give detailed and accurate descriptions of their experiences.

Ngā Mihi,

The GRACI Project Research Team

Applied Developmental Psychology Lab
School of Psychology
Victoria University of Wellington
Phone: (04) 463 5233 Extn: 8496

Applied-Developmental-Lab@vuw.ac.nz



What was involved?

Children participating in study one were seen two times at their childcare centre or school.

In the first session, Danélle or Helen talked with participating children, asking them to explain the meaning of different ground rules (e.g. “I don’t know”) and when they should be used. Children were asked to talk about their morning, before finishing the session with a short verbal learning activity that involves listening and answering questions.

In the second session, Danélle or Helen revisited participating children to complete additional learning and memory tasks. These tasks involve pointing to shapes, repeating lists of numbers, and a short computer-based activity where children were asked to sort pictures of animals.

Both one-on-one sessions took place at the child’s school or early childcare centre. After each session children were given a small thank-you gift, such as stickers or stationery as a token of our appreciation for their efforts.


A short task for parents/caregivers

A parent or caregiver for each participating child was asked to compete a short Social Skills Questionnaire.



“Hello, I’m Abby the alien”

Did your child recently participate in study one and come home talking about Abby the alien?


Abby is our friendly alien from outer space, who doesn’t know anything about our planet. We ask children to describe to Abby what different ‘ground rules’ mean to teach her how we talk with each other.